iF WASHing TOn AnD SiliCOn VAllEy were in a race to make the
best use of data, then D.C. was being lapped. This was hardly a result
of the government’s lack of interest, but rather a shortfall of talent in
the nation’s capital.
For years the best and brightest had chosen lucrative careers in
California, forgoing public service to chase billionaire dreams and
the stuff of technological lore. The Obama administration sought to
change that dynamic by turning its attention to the tech sector in
hopes of luring the most talented data scientists into public service
by appealing to their sense of civic duty and offering access to what is
perhaps the largest cache of data in the free world.
Patil was a natural fit.
It’s an honor of rare quality for the president to create a position
with you specifically in mind, but the exaltation must be short-lived
when Patil looks at the job ahead of him and sees a duty that’s as far-reaching and large in scope as the human imagination.
First on the docket is the Precision Medicine Initiative, a program
helmed by Patil that intends to revolutionize the way we treat illness
by utilizing the flourishing business of human genome sequencing.
In Patil’s words: “We’ve done all these incredible things to sequence
the human genome and it’s becoming more affordable. [ We’re] bring-
ing that all together with your more generic health records … to un-
lock the next level of healthcare.”
If it sounds futuristic, it’s only because it is. Patil is working with
the Office of Science and Technology Policy to combine genome se-
quencing and data analysis to transform how we treat individual
sickness, a project that could very well carry medicine into a future
we’d have a hard time recognizing.
As of right now, most diseases are treated in a catch-all fashion, meaning drugs and treatments are fundamentally similar in
their design and application. If the Precision Medicine Initiative
is successful in the way scientists think it could be, we might be
looking at a future where every illness is handled in an incredibly
more personalized manner that takes into account our individual
genetics, environment and personal lifestyles to better focus and
improve the quality of our care.
THE POWER OF DATA mAy BE APPAREn T, and its applications nothing short of revolutionary, but the public is rarely sold on the benefits
of a brighter future alone. And they shouldn’t be—especially when
it comes to data. Because when you’re dealing with a commodity as
valuable as information, the liabilities are just as profound.
First and foremost, Patil has to make sure that privacy and ethical
concerns are being respected at every turn. The process has to be open
and transparent, particularly in an environment where U.S. citizens are
ever more concerned about the creeping limits of governmental surveillance, an issue that Patil says his team is keenly aware of.
“When we’re thinking about the mission statement of [our] team,”
Patil says, “one of the things that’s been really important is the word
‘responsibility.’ And so, our mission is to responsibly release the pow-
er of data for all Americans.”
It’s this emphasis on responsibility that should make all the dif-
ference when it comes to utilizing data in a world rocked by National
Security Agency snooping and the resulting scandals and privacy
encroachments worldwide. Patil is confident that his team is up to
the task, especially with regards to precision medicine, stressing that
every decision made will be centered on respecting “the patient, the
provider, and the researcher.”
Once it is all achieved, however—once the security issues are dealt
with, once the mountain of data is scaled and we can better see its myr-
iad uses from the summit—it’s up to Patil and his team to imagine how
that information could build us a better future.
And who would imagine, then, that the type of person who
would lead us there is a skateboarding iconoclast outsider who had
to scrape and claw his way into college, only to find his purpose
therein? Such a person may not be at all who we first envision, but
given a second look, maybe that’s exactly who we should’ve been
looking for all along.
More tritons in
the White house
DR. COnniE mARiAnO, Revelle ’77, is the first military woman to
become the White House physician to the president, the first woman
director of the White House medical Unit, and the first Filipino-American in history to become a U. S. Navy rear admiral. “I had to
be strong but humble,” she says. “I had to become my father and my
uncles while at the same time transcending my roots.”
After retiring from her post with President Clinton, mariano founded
the Center for Executive medicine in Arizona and authored a memoir,
The White House Doctor.
ElizABETH PHu, a 2000 graduate of the School of International
Relations and Pacific Studies (now global Policy and Strategy), is the
current director for Oceania and East Asian security affairs for the
National Security Council, located at the White House.
She cites UC San Diego’s “incredibly complex position papers” as
key prep for her career writing briefs for the secretary of defense,
the national security advisor and the president: “Teamwork and the
critical thinking—and fast writing—are exactly what have got me
through every position in government since I graduated.”
For additional content, visit TRi TOnmAg.COm
Photo courtesy White House Photo Office